House of Ghosts

Jez Butterworth: The Ferryman, Royal Court Theatre / Gielgud Theatre, London (Director: Sam Mendes)

By Sascha Krieger

These are solid walls. Brick, whitewashed, having stood the test of time. But wait, isn’t the roof slanted, isn’t there something off? As if an alternative reality has invaded the „real“ one of the Carney family: mother, father, 7 children, a sister-in-law, two aunts and an uncle. A second layer of reality which says: your present, your stability are illusions and will crumple. There is a deeper truth beneath, a foundation on which this „now“ is built, which is treacherous and can make what seems fixed collapse at any given time. This is the premise of  both Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman (a favourite to win at the Oliver Awards in a few days time) and Sam Mendes‘ production. The pat is everywhere. We encounter it even before we do the Carney’s: in a dirty Derry back alley in which an IRA leader informs a priest about the Quinn Carney’s missing brother being found after ten years. In a bog, hands and feet tied, a bullet in his head. AN IRA job, it seems clear. So a shadow lies on the proceedings we see then unfold. A lively rural family on harvest day. All the clichés are they: joking is abundant, everyone has the „gift of the gob“, stories are told, songs are sung, politics quarrelled about. If there is a text-book about what to include in an entertaining play about Ireland, it’s all here.

Image: Sascha Krieger

The play’s playing with stereotypes is not a weakness, it’s a strength. Because, from the outset, it establishes the presence of conflicting realities: there’s the cliché of the Irish optimism, joy of life, carrying on no matter what happens, the love of stories and drink, the abandon of a people a little foolish, a little irresponsible, certainly headstrong, but good-hearted when it counts. A colonial image, a racist one. Then there’s the harsh reality of Northern Ireland in 1981: the IRA hunger strike is in full swing, the unwillingness to compromise on any side as strong as perhaps not ever since 1969, the northern statelet polarized and gripped in hatred and violence. Then there is the past, the realm of the absent. Those absent in mind as dementia-plagued Aunt Maggie who occasionally comes to visit as the Carney children call is before departing again to her closed inner world. And those absent in body: Quinn’s brother Seamus, missing for ten years, is one, his uncle Michael, killed in the 1916 Easter Rising at the age of 16, another. At the end of the play another life will have been taken in its early teenage years. Which takes us to the final level: the mythical, in which time stands still, there is no progress, just the repetition of what always was and always will be. Uncle Pat, the chief storyteller, quotes Vergil. The idea that countless souls are waiting at the shores of the Styx to be ferried over, waiting in eternity as their souls are not free to cross because their bodies haven’t been properly buried, is at the centre of the play (and its title’s inspiration).

Butterworth, Mendes and set designer Rob Howell create a world in which vanishing, a word Quinn at one point bitterly philosophises about, is the norm. On all levels: the mythological, the political, the personal. For Quinn doesn’t just have to deal with a vanished brother, and a disappeared uncle’s legacy held up by the fanatical Aunt Patricia, There is also his wife hiding away upstairs with an invested virus infection and Caitlin, the sister-in-law he’s secretly in love with which, of course he cannot admit. It’s the interplay between the „big“ and the „small“ worlds, the secrets and lies on every single level that make this play and its first staging so memorable and haunting. It is a ghost dance, best exemplified by the moving and hilarious slow blindfolded dance Quinn and Caitlin perform early on. A dance generations of hidden stories and their forgotten heroes join. A dance that is played out throughout the evening. Which switches back and forth between naturalism and mystery. Aunt Maggie hears the banshees wail, Tom Kettle, a slow witted English man, who appeared on the farm at twelve years old out of nowhere, a child of magic and mystery and doom, is a gentle magician in a world in which all magic is dark and performed with guns and bullets.

The past, imagined or real, mythical or of this world, comes back to haunt them. politics and personal secrets intertwine to create destruction. Mendes accentuates the fullness of life (there is a real baby on stage!) starkly contrasting with the prevalence of death and pays tremendous attention to detail, small movements, looks easy to miss. It is the unsaid where the story lies, the fate, the doom. Lights fade, gothic coldness fills the room, ghost-like sounds sweep through it. And remain when reality is back, real-world conflicts conspire to bring the unstable house down for good. The current company, replacing the initial one, is more than capable: Owen McDonnell’s Quinn is an optimistic patriarch, full of humorous spirit, and a torn, bruised, damaged soul. Rosalie Craig plays Caitlin as a stubbornly proud as well as humble woman, gentle and utterly desperate. Everybody has this darker underlying, especially boisterous Pat (Mark Lambert), whose joyousness is punctuated with existential dread. Among the fine younger cast, Laurie Kynaston shines particularly ans Caitlin’s 14-year-old son Oisín: a gentle, warm-hearted, sensitive boy slowly revealing a hidden level of despair, anger and teenage confusion, a symbol of a generation held in perpetual limbo. Which goes for those before them, too, but is particularly tragic for those who are supposed to start life. A life which will get them nowhere as long as the grip of the past is not loosened. which is impossible until it is acknowledged, the secrets revealed, the lies broken. Which nobody will or can do. Which is why the sensationalistic ending pretending action and solution where none is found, unironically repeating clichés serving only to bring the play to an end, is so utterly annoying and induces anger in the viewer, almost spoiling a memorable and haunting three hours. Almost.

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